Dedicated to his deceased father, memory of whom perhaps informs his aging, elegant, taciturn protagonist, Slimane Beiji, Tunisian-born writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s La graine et le mulet revolves around family and extended family in France’s Mediterranean coastal Sète, where Slimane is discharged after 35 years as a shipyard laborer. Juggling a proud ex-wife, Souad, and a current partner, hotel-owner Latifa, he hopes to open a fish couscous restaurant with Souad as cook. But family difficulties match his other difficulties: financial; municipal reluctance to grant approval. (One official interviewing Slimane repeats over and over that his place would have to pass a health inspection as if she cannot conceive of his attachment to cleanliness, although there he is right in front of her, immaculately clean, neat, well-groomed.) Slimane decides to invite every official whose approval he must secure to a free dinner at his prospective restaurant, hoping for the best; but it appears that his womanizing married son has accidentally taken off with the huge container of cooked couscous. Is there even time for Souad to cook another batch of her celebrated recipe?
Making assured use of handheld camera, this glorious tragicomedy has two great set-pieces, a Sunday meal and the restaurant’s climactic trial-run, where officials are fidgeting and hungry as the couscous keeps not coming and the wine being served expands their frustrated appetities. Latifa’s 19-year-old daughter, Rym, who adores her stepfather, comes to what she hopes will be the rescue by giving everyone something else to attend to: a sustained, accomplished belly dance. It is spectacular, although Rym’s intense sweat underscores the irony of her tailoring her effort to stereotypical expectations.
Best film: Prix Louis Delluc; French critics; Étoiles d’Or; César. Prizes for Kechiche’s writing, direction. International Critics’ prizes: Venice; European Film Awards.
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